Dallas Cowboys

July 19, 2014

Five position battles to watch at Camp Cowboys

Three starting positions on defense could be decided in Oxnard.

From replacing injured linebacker Sean Lee to finding a receiver to take Miles Austin’s old job, the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of questions going into training camp. And they’ll use their time in Oxnard, Calif., to find those answers.

The position battles are always of most intrigue during camp. Jobs are on the line and everybody understands the cutthroat nature of the NFL. As the saying goes, NFL stands for “Not For Long,” and a poor training camp can spell doom for a few players.

Here’s a look at the top five position battles going into camp.

1. Middle linebacker

Candidates: Justin Durant, Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman, Rolando McClain.

Why it’s a battle: Sean Lee tore his ACL and is out for the season. For a defense coming off a historically bad season, this is the last position they wanted to be up for grabs. Justin Durant appears to be the front-runner, although there are concerns about his pass-coverage ability and durability after he dealt with hamstring issues last season. DeVonte Holloman started at this position late last season and will be given another look. Fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens had a successful college career at Iowa but might not be ready to make the leap this quickly in his pro career. And the wild card in the group is Rolando McClain, the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft who has retired twice and has yet to play to his potential.

Who wins: Durant. The Cowboys will go with the most tenured player out of an uninspiring group.

2. Left guard

Candidates: Ronald Leary, Mackenzy Bernadeau.

Why it’s a battle: Ronald Leary is the incumbent starter but will be pushed by Mackenzy Bernadeau. The younger Leary should be the slight favorite, especially if he doesn’t receive any discipline from the NFL from his 2012 drunken driving case. But Bernadeau played well and started the final eight games at right guard after Brian Waters’ season was ended by a torn triceps. This should be one of the most competitive camp battles.

Who wins: Leary. He started all 16 games last year without any glaring hiccups.

3. Third wide receiver

Candidates: Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Devin Street.

Why it’s a battle: Miles Austin is now in Cleveland and Terrance Williams is now officially the No. 2 receiver, a job he earned last season as a rookie. That leaves several in the mix for the third spot. Beasley is the favorite after averaging nearly three catches a game last season, although Harris has enough speed and elusiveness to make him an intriguing option. But, if the Cowboys want a bigger target, they could look to 6-foot-3 rookie Devin Street, the fifth-round pick out of Pitt.

Who wins: Beasley. He’s made enough clutch catches and has become a dependable target for Tony Romo.

4. Strong safety

Candidates: J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Jakar Hamilton.

Why it’s a battle: Barry Church has one of the safety spots locked down, but this is one of the more open competitions in camp. The team would like to see Wilcox step up and seize this position in his second year, and he’s expected to get most of the early reps with the first team. Heath is another option, but teams feasted on him when he was thrown into the fire last season. Hamilton, meanwhile, is a player to watch to see if he can take another step forward in his second year.

Who wins: Wilcox. He has the most potential to succeed at this level.

5. Cornerback

Candidates: Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, B.W. Webb.

Why it’s a battle: Brandon Carr is coming off a forgettable season, but the Cowboys have 50 million reasons to stick with him. Who starts opposite of Carr, however, is a question to be answered. Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2012, is under pressure to bounce back after an injury-riddled season. Scandrick played well in Claiborne’s spot and will provide heavy competition. Webb is a long shot and has been overmatched most times he’s been on the field.

Who wins: Claiborne. The Cowboys gave up their first two picks in ’12 to get Claiborne and aren’t going to let that investment end up on the bench.

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